Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana

Working in the Delta

Making Music in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

Choctaw Heritage of Louisiana and Mississippi

By Deborah Boykin


Tribal members tell two stories that explain how the Choctaws came to be. According to one legend, the Choctaw people emerged from Nanih Waiya, a large mound that still stands near the reservation in Winston County, Mississippi. French traveler Antoine S. le Page du Pratz recorded a version of this tale in his Histoire de la Louisiane, published in 1758. The other story tells of a migration from the land to the northwest, with two brothers, Chahta and Chickasa, leading a group in search of better lands. At the end of each day's travel, Chahta would sink a pole into the ground at the front of the camp. The next morning, the pole would be leaning one way or another, pointing out the direction in which the group should travel. The group stopped for the night at the site where the mound now stands and sank the pole into the ground. The next day, they found that the pole wasn't leaning at all, but was standing straight. Chahta took this as a sign that they had found the place where they were intended to live and he and the people under his leadership remained there, becoming the Choctaw people.

Whatever their origin, the Choctaws became one of the largest, most influential Indian tribes east of the Mississippi, developing a diversified agricultural economy and establishing trade with other tribes and with the Europeans who came to the region. By 1830, the Choctaws had signed a series of treaties with the United States ceding their lands east of the Mississippi. After three years of federal removal policies, more than 12,500 Choctaws had moved west of the Mississippi.

Others remained, however, both in Mississippi and Louisiana. The descendants of those who went to Louisiana are found today in the communities of Clifton and Jena. Those who stayed in the red clay hills and cypress swamps near Nanih Waiya are the ancestors of today's Mississippi Choctaws. For more than a century, their primary work was agricultural labor, with most Choctaws living as sharecroppers. They kept to themselves, for the most part, united by their language and pride in their Choctaw identity. By the end of the 19th century nearly a thousand Choctaws were living in Mississippi, but the tribe was hard hit by the influenza epidemic of 1918, and only a few hundred survived.

The beginning of the 20th century found Mississippi Choctaws struggling to overcome poverty, discrimination, and lack of opportunity. In 1918, the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened an office in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Over the next decade, the agency established elementary schools in the Choctaw communities and built a hospital in Philadelphia for tribal members. In 1945, the tribe received federal recognition, and a tribal government was reestablished. Over the next 55 years, the tribal government regained control of Choctaw schools, health care facilities, legal and judicial systems, and social service programs, setting the stage for a period of economic growth unparalleled in tribal history. The completion of an 80-acre industrial park in 1979 was the first step in the development of a diversified industrial economy for Mississippi Choctaws. Twenty-one years later, the tribe operates a dozen business and industrial enterprises and is among the five largest employers in the state of Mississippi.

The Choctaws welcomed these changes, but held tenaciously to many of their traditions as well. Today's tribal members have done the same, taking what they need from modern technology and innovation, but retaining traditions that are important aspects of Choctaw life.

The language is perhaps most important. After removal, those who stayed in Mississippi spoke Choctaw to each other, instructing and amusing generations of their children with okka anompa, the humorous stories in which animal characters illustrate some of the pitfalls of human behavior. These stories are still told in Choctaw, but the language is also heard in the schools, courts, and administrative offices on the reservation.

Many of the animals found in the stories play a role in Choctaw dance, as well. Performed to the beat of striking sticks and a chanted accompaniment, many of the dances are named for the animals they imitate. In the snake dance, for example, dancers form a line that coils and uncoils like the reptiles commonly seen in Mississippi woods, barns and gardens. Part of the raccoon dance consists of a couple darting around the other dancers, mimicking a playful pair of raccoons. The duck dance is characterized by one couple passing under the upraised arms of a facing couple, like ducks diving for food.

The fast war dance and the four-step war dance were once part of the preparation for conflict. These dances are unusual in comparison to the war dances of other tribes, because the women dance along with the men.

Social dances include the wedding dance, jump dance, the walk dance, and stealing partners. The latter is a game within a dance, with both men and women free to "steal" as many of their fellow dancers as they can. Many of the tribe's elders recall Saturday night gatherings at which the dancers would continue until the chanters were hoarse. The walk dance was always the last of the evening, signifying the beginning of the journey home.

Choctaws have been noted for their readiness to adapt and incorporate aspects of other cultures. The house dance is a good example of this characteristic, incorporating elements of circle dances learned from their European neighbors. Unlike the social dances, these are accompanied by a fiddler.

A Choctaw ribbon shirt by Mary Jones. This shirt is in the Creole State Collection. Photo: Thomas Wintz.

The traditional Choctaw clothing worn by social dancers is another example of the Choctaws' willingness to borrow from other traditions. The women's dress, which tribal members simply call a "Choctaw dress" has been in use for well over 100 years and was most likely adapted from the clothing worn by 19th century European women. The design becomes distinctively Choctaw with the addition of hand-sewn decorative appliqué. The full diamond design is said to represent the diamond-back rattlesnake, while the half-diamond depicts Nanih Waiya, the Choctaws' mother mound. Alternating circles and crossed lines on the scalloped ruffles represent stickballs and crossed ball sticks. The most traditional article worn with Choctaw clothing is a sash, which is appliqué and beaded with designs that probably originated among the Mississippian peoples of the Southeast.

Mary Jones wearing one of her chinaberry necklaces. Photo: Carolyn DeMeritt.

Only a small number of women still make traditional clothing. No pattern exists for the dress. The dressmaker knows what shapes must be cut and what measurements she needs from the woman who will wear the dress. A few older women continue to wear Choctaw dresses almost exclusively, although dresses for daily wear are usually made from a printed material and are often decorated with rick rack instead of appliqué. For the most part, however, Choctaw clothing is reserved for social dancing or special occasions.

Swamp cane baskets are probably the oldest and best-recognized example of Choctaw material culture. Some of the earliest descriptions of Choctaw life refer to their use of cane for bedding, mats, and baskets. This tradition continues, with contemporary basket makers gathering and preparing materials in the same way that generations before them have. Basket makers, too, have made innovations when they saw fit. Commercial dyes such as RIT have replaced vegetable dyes, allowing a wide range of color choices and as a result, more complexity in patterns. Styles have changed somewhat, too. Egg baskets, hamper baskets, and sifter baskets date back to a time when baskets had functional uses, but modern baskets are more likely to hold magazines than garden produce. Choctaw baskets are prized by collectors, as well, especially the double weave. This technique produces a two-walled basket that is exceptionally strong and beautiful.

A Choctaw-style cane basket by Tom Colvin, an Anglo weaver who learned from Mathilda Johnson, the last Bayou Lacombe Choctaw weaver. Colvin taught Jena Choctaw tribal members, including Rose Fisher. This basket is in the Creole State Exhibit. Photo: Thomas Wintz.

Basketry, traditional dance, and storytelling are all part of the Choctaw Indian Fair, held each July on the reservation in the Pearl River community near Philadelphia. The Fair is a way for tribal members to celebrate the year's accomplishments and enable other people to learn about Choctaw culture and traditions. The Fair is also central to another long-standing tradition, the game of stickball. Many of the early European writings about the tribe describe Choctaw stickball. In the early 1830s artist George Catlin painted a game among Choctaws who had recently arrived in Oklahoma. The game appears to have changed little. It is still played with two sticks, handcrafted from hickory with a bent-wood cup at one end. The players use these to catch and throw a ball fashioned from woven leather. They score by moving down the field and throwing the ball against the opposing team's goal, a pole set into the gound. Here again, the Choctaws show their talent for adaptation. The "World Series of Stickball" is played on the football field at Choctaw Central High School and the scoring posts are set at the center of the football goal posts.

The Choctaw people now deal with the challenges of managing a complex infrastructure and economy. The tribe's population is nearly eight times larger than it was in 1900. Opportunities for education and employment are greater than at any time in the tribe's history. Today's tribal members look toward a future that would have seemed far out of reach to their ancestors, but culture and tradition continue to bind Mississippi Choctaws together.

This essay was originally published in the 2000 Louisiana Folklife Festival booklet. Deborah Boykin is tribal archivist for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.